So Much for California’s Anti-Sprawl Law

SB 375 is not looking great out of the gate

When California passed SB 375 in 2008, the national media swooned and smart growth advocates issued glossy brochures about the law.  SB 375 was intended to curb sprawl, promote more compact and walkable communities served by transit, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all through a regional planning process that would coordinate land use plans with transportation funding. It was intended to be solely incentive-based, with no mandates for housing or transit.

San Diego is now the first region in the state to have to submit their coordinated land use and transportation plan to state regulators. SANDAG, its regional entity, recently released a draft plan, called a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” or SCS.

So how did San Diego do? In short, the effort is a dud. At the big picture level, it barely even accomplishes the express purpose of the law, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering vehicle miles traveled. In the short term, the plan reduces average weekday per capita greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle miles traveled. However, the reductions appear to be largely the result of getting more people to telecommute and from improved traffic flow such as through better signals and carpool incentives. Hardly the stuff of game-changing anti-sprawl policies. Worse, over the long term, these greenhouse gas reductions dwindle from 14% per capita in 2020 to only 9% by 2050, reaching virtually the same levels of per capita vehicle miles traveled as today, as my colleagues at the UC Berkeley Center for Resource Efficient Communities describe.  So much for bending the curve on sprawl over the long term.

So what went wrong? At the micro level, SANDAG was hamstrung by a voter-approved sales tax initiative to fund transportation improvements in the region. Because San Diego is somewhat locked into a series of highway projects through this initiative, the region may not have a lot of flexibility to build the kind of public transit system necessary to accommodate more compact growth. But at the macro level, SANDAG’s draft plan simply doesn’t take any aggressive steps to change the status quo. For example, SANDAG doesn’t consider front-loading transit plans over highway projects as a possible solution to sprawl, and the agency doesn’t appear to encourage aggressive local government policies to plan for more infill development. Instead, SANDAG appears to have taken a passive role, largely compiling existing local land use plans and forecasting based on them.  Even the forecasting could be more aggressive by taking into account feedback effects from building better transit projects that could attract more infill development.

In many ways, the problem is structural to SB 375. Given that land use in California is the primary responsibility of local governments, a law that does virtually nothing to require local governments to change their practices is unlikely to have much of an effect. All along, SB 375 supporters appeared to be counting on the goodwill of the basically toothless regional entities to be forward-thinking and push their local governments to change, either through incentives or by getting people excited about a more compact development footprint. But the regional entities are comprised of local government officials, who in turn respond to local constituents who tend not to like new development in their neighborhoods. Local officials also don’t like others telling them what to do on land use. SB 375 does nothing to change this dynamic. At the end of the day, it may simply result in a lot of detailed plans like SANDAG’s that never actually force any change on the ground. And as I’ve written before, the state has no recourse through SB 375 to improve the plans.

But all is not lost. SANDAG’s plan is still in draft form, and the agency will hopefully respond to comments from the public to improve the plan. And if that fails, smart growth advocates can always go back to an old standby, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). There may be a lawsuit potential if the final plan fails to do what it is feasible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would certainly be ironic if it took California’s oldie-but-goodie CEQA to rescue the shiny new SB 375 from failure.

Reader Comments

12 Replies to “So Much for California’s Anti-Sprawl Law”

  1. I guess I wouldn’t take as critical of an approach to SANDAG’s plan as you did here given the revenue and funding constraints they are facing. They’ll have to get a pretty significant local tax approved in order to fund any major transit project. Most munis are struggling to get by on what little funding they receive as it is. Why call for a CEQA suit when they are doing their best to comply with SB375; a bill which didn’t identify any new funding mechanisms for local governments?

  2. At the micro level, I suspect that self-help(voter-approved-sales-tax)-for-transportation counties are fairly comfortable and pleased to be in straightjackets that make them “somewhat locked into a series of highway projects.” Voters love the idea of driving faster. But it may just be that voters will bite at whatever transportation initiative comes before them first, promising to make things better.

  3. Actually, there is plenty of money available for Transit in San Diego. The only problem is that the local officials want to spend it all on freeway widening. The TransNet extension (dubbed TransNet II) provided for a change to the spending plan by a 2/3 vote of the SANDAG board of directors. The problem is not that the money isn’t there, it’s that there isn’t the political will to tell developers and sprawl-loving suburbs that their paradigm isn’t sustainable.

    “This extension (through 2048) is expected to generate approximately $14 billion to be distributed among highway, transit, and local road projects to reduce traffic congestion in San Diego County.”
    Slide #33. $196.2 billion to execute SCS. At a 20%fed-20%state-60%local funding split, that’s a whole lot of money. I’m not sure of the exact math once you account for existing revenue sources, but the San Diego reps indicated at the workshop they’d need to identify a major new source of revenue locally in order to pay for the plan.

    I’d agree that the political will is possibly absent, but it’s not exactly easy to come up with multiple billions of dollars to pay for anything these days, much less on the local level.

  5. You don’t necessarily have to fund a lot of transit to reduce VMT, although that certainly helps and is critical in the long-term. Better land use planning, where you have a mix of jobs and housing and services within walking and biking distance, can go a long way to reducing vehicle trips. Ultimately, land use drives VMT more than anything else, and from what I can see, SANDAG is not doing very much to encourage its local governments to take action. Of course, SB 375 doesn’t give it many tools to do so.

  6. Oh, are GHG impacts something actually covered by CEQA yet, or are GHG analyses in EIRs still pretty much voluntary?

  7. The CEQA guidelines and established precedent require analysis of GHG emissions for certain projects. My guess is that SANDAG will be facing a CEQA lawsuit that will probably force substantial changes to this otherwise weak SCS. But even a strong SCS under SB 375 is not necessarily going to force local land use changes, as I’ve discussed in previous postings.

  8. Ah, things have advanced a little since I worked for an environmental consulting firm. The CEQA guidelines shaped up pretty much the way we thought they would. But are there yet any adopted policies, plans or whatever, for the reduction of GHG emissions, to tier off of? (Something that’s not tied up in court.) (A bold goal like AB 32 is not a plan or a sufficiently detailed policy, even when stated as a requirement.)

    I’m catching up here. Please tell me, are there any enforceable standards in effect?
    I just noticed that at the pre-EIR (initial study) phase, a lead agency can rely on significance thresholds “recommended by experts.” Has any agency successfully used such a threshold to preclude (or require) the preparation of a GHG analysis in an EIR?

    Are there any established thresholds of significance for EIR-quantified GHG emissions that any one project in California could come close to exceeding? How about a level that’s “cumulatively considerable” for similar projects together with the proposed project (for pre-EIR, initial study purposes)?

    Has there been any successful regulatory definition of the geographic area(s) of impacts to be considered for a project’s cumulative impacts analysis? Has CEQA extended beyond Calif.? Is there a GHG emissions reduction plan for a geographic area other than statewide (say, a local agency’s jurisdiction)?

    Before determining the extent to which a project must mitigate “the significant effects of greenhouse gas emissions,” is anybody factoring in, on the benefits side, the large populated areas in California in which GHG-driven climate change is actually projected to improve air quality by lowering ambient ozone and particulate concentrations? Has that projection been excluded from, or included in, cumulative impacts analysis?

    Finally, with regard to SB 375, I see (in newish CEQA guideline 14 CCR §15183.5) that “environmental documents for certain residential and mixed use projects, and transit priority projects . . . that are consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area in an applicable sustainable communities strategy or alternative planning strategy need not analyze global warming impacts resulting from cars and light duty trucks.” So adopting an SCS (sustainable communities strategy) quickly, in a regulatory time of great discretion, might be an easy way to avoid a lot of analyses later! And if the CEQA framework for evaluating the GHG aspects of SCSs is incomplete, an SCS might effectively escape judicial/CEQA review no matter how lax it seems.

  9. My understanding is that the guidelines and precedent provide only general direction to lead agencies to answer the questions you raise. But although some uncertainty may exist around these issues, compliance with AB 32, SB 375, and local climate mitigation plans may insulate projects from exceeding levels of significance, particularly with standard mitigation measures employed. The AG has some good resources on CEQA and GHG analysis here:

    Regarding the SCS streamlined review you mention, I think that it will provide some CEQA relief for projects, but they still have to meet a number of other requirements to be eligible (see the criteria for being considered a “transit priority project”).

  10. Bikeopeli, are you thinking employers own parking lots where their office workers currently park for free? I’m pretty sure that’s rare. And I doubt you can get employee compensation outlawed, even if it does come in the form of parking.

    You might have a point about free parking for customers, however. I dare you to even begin to try to get that outlawed!

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

READ more